BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Cultivation of the leaf used to make cocaine skyrocketed last year in Colombia, according to a new study by the United Nations that is likely to raise questions about the government's decision to abandon a US-backed aerial eradication campaign.
The U.N.'s annual survey, based in part on satellite imagery, found that coca production jumped 44 percent last year in Colombia to about 266 square miles (69,000 hectares), about 12 times the size of Manhattan. Potential cocaine production was up even more, by 53 percent to 442 metric tons.
The increase is the biggest in almost a decade and takes coca production back to levels not seen since 2009. The findings come on the heels of a separate U.S. government survey showing production shot up 39 percent in 2014.
Combined, the two reports are likely to put more pressure on President Juan Manuel Santos to come up with a winning strategy to curb cocaine production after he decided in May decided to halt aerial spraying of coca crops that has been the cornerstone of the US-led drug war in Colombia. Santos' move, which was questioned by the US, came in the wake of a report by a research arm of the World Health Organization classifying the herbicide used to destroy coca as a probable carcinogen.
Production last year rose most in the southern departments of Caqueta and Putumayo, the beachhead for Plan Colombia launched by the US more than a decade ago and where the bulk of production is concentrated.
The U.N. report partly attributes the increase to political factors as farmers seek to gain leverage with the government, perhaps anticipating an eventual peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. As part of the nearly three-year-old peace talks taking place in Cuba, the FARC has already agreed to work with the government to encourage farmers to voluntarily eradicate coca in areas where the rebels are dominant, although details of how the crop substitution and alternative development plan will work remain unclear.
Lower threats of aerial eradication, especially in the 59 national parks that have been off-limits to spraying for years, are also fueling the increase, the U.N. said. While the 55,554 hectares sprayed last year with glyphosate by American defense contractors was up slightly from 2013, aerial eradication efforts are at third of the level seen in 2006, when they were at their peak. Meanwhile manual eradication fell 44 percent to 12,496 hectares.
Santos has said he'll rely more on more dangerous and labor-intensive manual eradication efforts to replace spraying, partly in response to criticism by farmers. But it's a strategy critics say could see Colombia swimming in coca within a few years. Coca is already present in 21 of Colombia's 34 departments, according to the UN.
Surveys of production in Bolivia and Peru, the other two main cocaine-producing countries, will be released in the coming weeks, the U.N. said.